Can Europe save our planet?

This week, David Cameron will meet fellow European leaders to try and conclude fraught negotiations over EU strategy on energy and climate change.

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As if David Cameron didn’t have enough to worry about, later this week he will meet fellow European leaders to try and conclude fraught negotiations over EU strategy on energy and climate change. In the shadow of the crisis in Ukraine, the focus will be firmly on what the new measures mean for Europe’s energy security. But will they give President Putin sleepless nights or just illustrate how difficult it is to get Europe’s leaders to agree?

The package that the leaders agree – if indeed Poland and other eastern European countries let them agree anything at all - could also have profound implications for the next fifteen years for everything from our industrial policy to the cost of the average household energy bill. The outcome will also be a key test of Europe’s resolve on dealing with climate change. Renewed climate leadership could help to leverage greater ambition on the part of other major economies like China and make reaching an international emissions agreement at next year’s important UN summit in Paris more likely.

On this question Britain’s Energy Secretary Ed Davey has been something of the unsung hero of the negotiations. He assembled a pan-European coalition of Ministers to champion more ambition on cutting carbon pollution and he commendably remains the primary advocate for leaving the door open to upping Europe’s effort on emissions.

This will be essential. As British Professor Jim Skea of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told the BBC this week, the target currently under consideration by Europe – for a 40 per cent cut in carbon pollution on 1990 levels – is “too little, too late.” Ed Davey is right to press for this number to be raised to 50 per cent and he has presented powerful evidence – backed up by the European Commission’s own analysis – that this would be better for the European economy as a whole.

Back in 2007, the last time leaders met to agree a comprehensive European climate and energy plan, Tony Blair and Angela Merkel signed off on a deal that meant that by 2020 Europe as a whole should have cut its output of greenhouse gas pollution by 20 per cent, improved energy efficiency by 20 per cent, and be meeting 20 per cent of all its energy demand from renewable sources.

At the time, the package was seen as mightily ambitious. Yet the target they set for cutting carbon pollution was met seven years ahead of schedule, albeit in part because of the economic downturn. Similarly, their clean energy target is set to be exceeded, not least because of dramatic reductions in the cost of onshore wind and solar power over the past five years – cost reductions helped along by the European policy itself. Their target for energy efficiency will be missed, but only just, and its impact is already being felt in savings to consumers from more fuel-efficient vehicles, and avoided gas imports.

This time around there’s likely to be a much stronger government emphasis on energy efficiency because of the role it could play in weakening Russia. As I recently set out in a report for IPPR, by making energy efficiency the centre-piece of Europe’s strategy, gas imports could be cut by a third – equivalent to the proportion of the EU’s demand met by Russia. It could also enable the EU’s fuel bill to be trimmed by half a trillion euros through to 2030, and significantly help with the carbon problem too. There are also plans for Europe to meet almost 30 per cent of its energy demands from renewable sources but this time it looks unlikely that there’ll be individual targets for member states, raising questions about the deliverability of the proposal.

What’s a lot less clear is whether this week’s summit will see governments finally get to grips with their ailing Emissions Trading Scheme, which has spectacularly failed. Its flaws are evident in the fact that coal burning, the most polluting practise of all, has actually grown over the past few years. This is important because unless it is urgently fixed, or new measures are introduced along the lines of those Obama just put in place in the United States, coal-fired generation could cancel out much of the environmental benefits of the other elements of the new energy package, and make the politicians’ headline-grabbing climate target utterly undeliverable.

The outcome of this week’s summit speaks to the bigger question dominating the Westminster debate: is Europe still capable of making big, shared decisions that are in all our collective interests? Let’s see.

Joss Garman is associate fellow at the think tank IPPR

Joss Garman is associate fellow on climate change and energy at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).